The analysis of conceptual metaphors in “Breaking the law” by Judas Priest

Hi there! My long silence is finally broken and Digging Metalaphor delivers yet another post. With this one I am kind of filling a gap here. Those of you who have been following me probably noticed that in the course of the last two years I have touched a lot of big names in metal (some were featured even twice!) except for the biggest: JUDAS PRIEST. So far the closest I could get to the Metal Gods was the critical look at “Resurrection” by Halford which, as far as I am concerned, deserved much more attention than it actually got. Today, however, I will compensate for my reluctance to publish something about my favorite band. The current post delves into one of the Priest’s classics, namely, “Breaking the Law” (featured on the “British Steel” LP 1980). Let’s head straight to the lyrics:

Verse 1

  1. There I was completely wasting, out of work and down
  2. All inside it’s so frustrating, as I drift from town to town
  3. Feel as though nobody cares if I live or die,
  4. So I might as well begin to put some action in my life


  1. Breaking the law, breaking the law x 4

 Verse 2

  1. So much for the golden future, I can’t even start
  2. I’ve had every promise broken, there’s anger in my heart
  3. You don’t know what it’s like, you don’t have a clue
  4. If you did you’d find yourselves, doing the same thing too


  1. You don’t know what it’s like


Nice and short, “Breaking the Law” is a permanent guest on the JP’s set-list. Ironically, I have seen the band live only once (in 2011 in Germany) and exactly at that gig Halford did not perform the vocals to “Breaking the Law” – he let the crowd sing the song instead of him, turning the performance into a mega karaoke. Enough said. Let us now go through the metaphors in this celebrated piece of metal history.

Let’s go break that law!

Metaphors are abundant in the first verse of the song, which is of course very good for our cause. Let’s take another look at the lyrics:

  1. There I was completely wasting, out of work and down
  2. All inside it’s so frustrating, as I drift from town to town
  3. Feel as though nobody cares if I live or die,
  4. So I might as well begin to put some action in my life
  5. Breaking the law, breaking the law x4

Metaphorically rich, line 1 provides us with three instances of figurative thought. Consider the words “There I was completely wasting…” (i.e. depressed). What is probably meant here is one of the following: either the main hero refers to wasting his time or his life/efforts on something he cannot get or achieve. Any way we go, we deal with the metaphor ABSTRACT NOTIONS ARE PHYSICAL OBJECTS. This is one of the most widespread cognitive tools, so to say. It allows us to reason about abstract concepts in terms of the really existing physical objects. The latter ones are easy to make sense of; with the help of analogical reasoning their properties may be projected onto the abstract entities like “life”. If you, for instance, have an object and put it to wrong use all the time so that in the end it is damaged/gone/cannot perform its main functions, we say it was wasted. When projected onto “life” with the help of the metaphor above, we can say that somebody’s life was wasted (or is being wasted) if not lived in a certain way. If a person in question is not happy with such state of affairs, then this may lead to a depression. So, in case of “there I was completely wasting…” we have a cause-effect metonymy in the meaning of the expression. (I wish to thank Matt Bass of Witchclan for helping me out here).

Out of work” in the same line is the STATES ARE LOCATIONS metaphor which is a frequent guest not only in the lyrics of the songs on this blog, but can be spotted pretty much in any written or spoken text. Think, for instance, of the cases like “being in love” or “going through depression”.  The mechanics of this metaphor are rather straightforward: any state can be visualized as being in some physical location. Entering the state is crossing the boundary of the location inward. Consequently, leaving the state is leaving the physical location. The projections of these analogies from one domain to another constitute the metaphor.

The last word in the line – “down” – refers to the state of depression I mentioned earlier when dealing with “wasting”. It is an instance of the HAPPY IS UP / SAD IS DOWN metaphor. Like any other orientational metaphor, this one has a solid experiential grounding, namely correlation between a state of affection and upright posture. Other examples include “to cheer up, high spirits etc”. Pretty simple I guess.

Moving on to line 2 – All inside it’s so frustrating, as I drift from town to town – we identify a couple of other metaphors. Speaking about his feelings of frustration, Rob Halford says “All inside it’s so frustrating”, employing the BODY IS A CONTAINER metaphor. This one is very much obvious thing as a body is already a natural container (e.g. we take food and water in it and eventually something comes also out of it). Since the experience of feelings is technically one of the many functions of our bodies and since it is so natural to any human to have them, it is no wonder we conceptualize any feeling as being physically inside our bodies.

The second part of the line is arguably a metaphor as well. In “As I drift from town to town” the key word is “drift”. Used in its prototypical sense, the word would mean to be carried along by a natural force like wind or water, to move or float in a random way, effortlessly etc. In our context however the word is used in a metaphorical sense, because it is applied to a person who is said to change cities frequently. Thus, it may be claimed that in this very case the person in question is stripped off of their human attributes and is equated to an object (the Great Chain of Being metaphor, maybe?) carried away by natural forces. Such an explanation makes sense because it would mean to live a life of least resistance, go down the flow.

Line 3 is of no real interest to us. Line 4 – So I might as well begin to put some action in my life – however, features two more metaphors. The first is simple objectification of “action”. Not much to say here. The second one is also so familiar to us STATES ARE LOCATIONS in the “in my life” part. The logic here pretty much follows the explanation I have given earlier, when talking about “out of work” metaphor. So I send the dear reader to the respective passage above to check the entire thing once again if needed.

Here we come to the chorus part! As you may have already guessed, the “Breaking the law” piece is also a metaphor and – I am sure – the first intention of many is to classify it as simple objectification. Even though it is possible to think about it in this way, I incline to the view that this very expression may be connected to the notion of Moral Wholeness. The latter is rooted into the idea of the unity of form and substance (homogeneity), which makes the physical objects strong, stable, resistant to external and free from internal pressures. Metaphorically, this physical integrity can help conceptualizing the abstract integrity, when talking about moral norms, law, people, country (degenerate people, decay of moral norms etc. from Lakoff 1996) etc. Thus, morality is seen as wholeness and immorality as the opposite. As always, the logic of the source domain becomes the logic of the target one: physically strong, homogeneous objects are resistant to the internal and external pressure, do not fall apart that easy, function predictably and can be relied upon. Morally “whole” people are not influenced by the outer or inner evil, are predictable in their behavior and thus can be relied upon. The contrary holds for the objects, consisting of different substances or having weird shapes, for instance. Project it now on the target domain yourself in order to illustrate the point (e.g. the recent US presidential election is very exemplary in this respect).

So, in our case with the broken law we may speculate, for instance, that it was actually easily broken because it may have been wrongly “shaped” or too weak, because strong laws are functional and can rely upon. As I pointed out above, this is only my conjecture and I would be very glad to hear your thoughts on this issue. Feel free to drop a line or two in the comments below.

That part with stealing golden vinyls 🙂

Here we approach the second verse of the Judas Priest’s classics and it promises to bring some engaging challenges to the mind. Let’s go over the lyrics first:

  1. So much for the golden future, I can’t even start
  2. I’ve had every promise broken, there’s anger in my heart
  3. You don’t know what it’s like, you don’t have a clue
  4. If you did you’d find yourselves, doing the same thing too


  1. You don’t know what it’s like

The entire line 6 revolves around the LIFE IS A JOURNEY metaphor. I guess it is easier to figure it out if you look at the end of the line first. “I can’t even start” obviously refers to the so-called “start in live” – the expression made possible only if a span of life is conceptualized as a road and living a life – as travelling down this road.

Life is commonly seen as a journey – the metaphor which should already be well-known to any regular reader of this blog. The examples are really ubiquitous, providing a nice overview of the metaphor’s entailments. Let’s go over some of them (Lakoff / Turner „More than a cool reason“; Kövecses “Metaphor”):

  • A person leading a life is a traveler (e.g. I cannot figure out where I am in life.)
  • His / her purposes are destinations (e.g. This relationship is going nowhere / is a dead-end street)
  • Means to achieve the purposes are routes (e.g. We have gotten off the track; We have to go all the way now.)
  • Difficulties are impediments to travel (e.g. It is a bumpy road ahead of us; We have made it through the storm.)
  • Progress is the distance traveled (e.g. Look how far we have come in this relationship.)
  • Choices in life are crossroads (e.g. We are at a crossroads now…)

Based on this line of thinking we can explain the utterance “golden future” by imagining a physical environment covered with gold in front of a traveler (metaphorical person leading a life). And because gold presumes wealth, the expression simply means “great rich future”.

Let’s go on to line 7 – I’ve had every promise broken, there’s anger in my heart – which contains no less than three metaphors waiting to be addressed. The first is mentioning of the broken promises. A promise is an act, a speech act to be more precise and cannot be broken. It is obvious that only a physical object can be broken or somehow damaged, which yields us the ABSTRACT CONCEPT IS A PHYSICAL OBJECT metaphor. Simply put, we meet here objectification yet again.

One more case of objectification follows straight away – it is “anger in my heart”. Anger is a state of the body and mind and though it has a physical basis it cannot be referred to as being in the heart or in the head or in the body or elsewhere. Anger is clearly objectified in Line 7 and described as being located in the heart, which gives us the third metaphor: HEART IS A CONTAINER. This one is also a no-brainer: if anger is contained in the heart, then heart is a container for anger. It is worth to note that heart is a natural container by itself and that a long literary tradition of the world has treated heart as a container for emotions, although we may find big cultural differences when it comes to what emotions exactly ‘belong’ to the heart.

An interested reader may find a detailed discussion of anger metaphors in “St. Anger” by Metallica worth skipping through.

Line 8 “You don’t know what it’s like, you don’t have a clue” has an idiom which you all have already spotted, of course. It may be argued that idioms – to some extent – have developed from conceptual metonymies or metaphors. As I am not an expert in this field and because it is not our direct concern here I will not pursue any line of explanation and leave the case as it is. Use your imagination and write in the comments section what you think of the possible story behind the idiom.

With Line 9 we are approaching the end of the lyrics to “Breaking the Law”. Here we also discover the last metaphor of the song.  If you did you’d find yourselves, doing the same thing too” contains the SELF IS A PHYSICAL OBJECT metaphor. This one is a part of a bigger metaphorical complex, namely SELF CONTROL IS OBJECT POSSESSION. One of the entailments of this metaphor is conceptualizing the loss of control of self as a loss of possession of a physical object (e.g. like in lose yourself, let yourself go).

“To find oneself” is, of course, an idiomatic expression, but in this case the origin of it can be clearly traced down. The meaning of the idiom is to begin to do or experience something unexpectedly or unintentionally, which exactly reflects the logic behind the SELF AS AN OBJECT metaphor: you lose your Self (=yourself) and cease having a full control over your actions or thoughts, which your Self is responsible for; you regain this control however when you find your Self (=yourself).

British Steel

If metal were a religion, “British Steel” would be its Bible. This album was a landmark not only in the discography of Judas Priest, but also in the history of the genre altogether. It is a first-class example of classical heavy metal at its best, with “Breaking the law” being one of the most popular, most covered and most recognizable metal songs ever. I invite you to check once again (of course, once again – what metalhead have not seen it?) the wonderful official music video to this song – the link to YouTube is as usually right below the post.

Dear readers, with these words I am wrapping up the fourth and last post on Digging Metalaphor in the year 2016. As you have already noticed I have not been really active in the last six month. It is challenging to find enough time for a good-quality writing with a demanding full-time job and intensive personal life. That is why I cannot also promise to publish regularly in 2017. However, if I find a time window I will surely pop up here in my little stash again. Until then, listen to good quality metal and keep the flame burning. A.K.


About Andriy Karamazov

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